Minor League Spotlight: Northwest Arkansas Naturals

This post first appeared on BaseballDigest.com

Last week, the Minor League Spotlight featured the Newark Bears of the independent Atlantic League, a franchise rich with local baseball connections that celebrates the history of baseball in the region. The latest focus for Spotlight is a team that has had several name changes and a few different homes, while maintaining a tradition of success!

This week the Spotlight heads out to Arvest Ballpark in Springdale, Arkansas, home of the Northwest Arkansas Naturals. The Kansas City Royals Double A Affiliate, and former San Diego Padres affiliate, has had a few incarnations since their days as the Amarillo Gold Sox in 1976. While the team has moved four times and have had five different names, they’ve had some consistency of success within the Texas League over the years. Since 1987, the team has won their division eight times and been the top team of the league three times, most recently winning their division in 2006.

Recently, Washington Nationals phenom Stephen Strasburg tore through the minor leagues and many fans were witnessing history as he mowed down the Pittsburgh Pirates in his major league debut. However, the reality is many players take a longer journey to the big leagues than the 2009 number one draft pick. The Naturals most recent division title, which occurred when they were playing in Wichita, Kansas as the Wranglers, featured a hard hitting outfielder by the name of Mitch Maier. Maier was a first round draft pick, and along with more than a dozen members of the 2006 Wichita Wranglers, has gone on to become an everyday major league ballplayer. 2009 American League Cy Young Award winner Zack Greinke was a part of that division champion rotation.

Major league talent rising through the ranks and paving their way as members of the Kansas City Royals Double A Affiliate has been going on for years. Before earning five trips to All-Star Games as a major leaguer, long time Royal Mike Sweeney slugged 14 home runs as a member of the 1996 Wichita Wranglers prior to joining the big league team for good later that season. The tenth round draft pick in 1991 slugged two more homers for the Wranglers a decade later during a rehab stint.

One of the first successes with the organization dates back to 1981, featuring a third round draft pick by the San Diego Padres from that same year. Before his Hall of Fame career lifted off, Tony Gwynn butchered the Texas League pitching as a member of the Amarillo Gold Sox to the tune of a .462 batting average! Four everyday players of the 1984 National League Champion Padres spent some time with the Amarillo Gold Sox.

Currently leading the Northern division of the Texas League by handful of games, part of the reason the Naturals have maintained a steady level of success is due to the draft picks made by the Kansas City Royals over the years. The number two overall pick of the 2007 MLB draft, Mike Moustakas, is hitting a robust .368 with 13 homers in 39 games this season, his first at the Double A level. Though he is three years removed from the draft, Moustakas is considered among the best prospects in the Kansas City Royals organization.

As Moustakas leads the offense with his bat, Michael Montgomery helps lead the way with his 2.04 career minor league earned run average that spans 39 games over three seasons. Baseball America ranked Montgomery the number one prospect in the Kansas City Royals organization in January.

The Kansas City Royals understand the value of finding talent wherever they can, and later this month they’re opening the doors of Arvest Ballpark to everyone over the age of 15. On Friday, June 18, at 8:30AM, the team will be holding a free try-out camp to everyone with a hope of reaching the big leagues.

You can find this and many more tidbits about the Naturals on their Facebook Fan Page, which has over 8,500 fans! The Naturals also utilize Twitter, using it to give fans news and deals, as well count down to the team clinching their division in the first half!

Previous Spotlights:

Next Week: To celebrate Father’s Day on Baseball Digest.com, next week’s Minor League Spotlight will focus on Mike Veeck, the third generation baseball man and promoter for six minor league baseball teams!

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